Checks and Balances

How Our Government Works
by Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight, Jr.

Our first government under the Articles of Confederation was scarcely a government at all. It was actually a little more than a social gathering among representatives of the sovereign states. It could not impose taxes, but only request financial support from the states which was never enough to keep the Revolutionary Army fed and clothed. It soon became clear that our government was a government in name only.

So a few inspired gentlemen that we now revere as the Founding Fathers convened a Constitutional Convention to draw up a new framework for a central government that would have the power to govern. This was highly controversial because there were many citizens who believed strongly that an impotent government was exactly what the country needed. A powerful government would be able to suppress individual liberties just as the British had done.

More than a few of the critics were veterans of the original tea party that dumped crates of tea into Boston Harbor in 1773 to protest the British tax on tea. The tea party then, like its namesake today, was comprised of tough minded people who felt strongly that government should be small and ineffectual to preclude tyranny.

But there were a few extraordinary individuals at large who realized that the ineffectual government they had created was a recipe for anarchy. If a government is to govern, it must have power - to collect taxes, set foreign policy, maintain an army and navy and generally attend to the public interests. Among those who felt this way were James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and, of course, George Washington.

There was a long-running debate between these people and other like-minded leaders and the small government advocates who perceived a devious plot underway. Madison, Hamilton and Jay co-authored a series of publications called The Federalist Papers that laid out their rationale for advocating a strong central government - still worth a read.

Eventually, the Federalists prevailed in large measure because they counted George Washington among their number. Washington did not talk a lot. He was not as articulate, erudite and well educated as some of his contemporaries. But he understood the principles at stake and his force of character was sufficient to determine the outcome.

Even so, the concerns about tyranny were reflected in the Constitution -- a government with divided powers to prevent any group or individual from becoming tyrannical. The conservatives who are today so determined to impose their vision on our government might do well to pause and consider the context of what they are attempting to do. To make the changes they want to make, it isn't enough to have working majorities in both Houses of Congress. The original tea party people saw to that. To make the changes they want, the conservatives need the White House too, and to win the Presidency they must demonstrate their ability to govern sensibly. Shutting down the government now would not serve their cause.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.